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Marshal Foch

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Marshal Foch

Marshal Ferdinand Foch
General Foch in 1921
Born 2 October 1851
Tarbes, France
Died 20 March 1929 (aged 77)
Paris, France
Allegiance  France
Service/branch French Army
Years of service 1871–1923

Generalissimo of the Allied Armies

Maréchal de France

Franco-Prussian War
First World War

Awards Marshal of France (1918)
British Field Marshal (1919)
Marshal of Poland (1920)
Grand Cross of the Légion d'honneur
Médaille militaire
Croix de guerre 1914–1918
Order of Merit (UK)
Virtuti Militari (1st Class)
Distinguished Service Medal (US)

Marshal Ferdinand Foch (French pronunciation: ​[fɔʃ]), GCB, OM, DSO (2 October 1851 – 20 March 1929) was a French soldier and military theorist, and an Allied Generalissimo during the First World War.

At the outbreak of war in August 1914, Foch's XX Corps participated in the brief invasion of Germany before retiring in the face of a German counterattack and successfully blocking the Germans short of Nancy. Ordered west to the defence of Paris, Foch's prestige soared as a result of the victory at the Marne for which he was widely credited as a chief actor while commanding the French Ninth Army. He was then promoted again to command Army Group North, in which role he was required to cooperate with the British forces at Ypres and the Somme. At the end of 1916, partly owing to the failure or stalemate of these offensives, and partly owing to wartime political rivalries, Foch was removed from command.

Recalled as Chief of the General Staff in 1917, Foch was ultimately appointed "Commander-in-chief (Generalissimo) of the Allied Armies" in the spring of 1918. He played a decisive role in halting a renewed German advance on Paris in the Second Battle of the Marne, after which he was promoted to Marshal of France.

On 11 November 1918, Foch accepted the German request for an armistice. Foch advocated peace terms that would make Germany unable to pose a threat to France ever again. After the Treaty of Versailles, due to Germany being allowed to remain a united country, Foch declared "This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years". His words proved prophetic: the Second World War started twenty years and sixty-five days later. In 1919 he was made an honorary Field Marshal in the British Empire, and in 1923 a Marshal of Poland, adding to a long list of military decorations.

Early life

Foch was born in Tarbes, Hautes-Pyrénées as the son of a civil servant from Comminges. He attended school in Tarbes, Rodez, and the Jesuit College in St. Etienne. His brother was later a Jesuit and this may initially have hindered Foch's rise through the ranks of the French Army (since the Republican government of France was anti-clerical).

Foch enlisted in the French 4th Marine Infantry Regiment, in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, and decided to stay in the army after the war. In 1871, Foch entered the École Polytechnique and received his commission as a Lieutenant in the 24th Artillery Regiment, in 1873, despite not having the time to complete his course due to the shortage of junior officers. He rose through the ranks, eventually reaching the rank of Captain before entering the Staff College in 1885. In 1895, he was to return to the College as an instructor and it is for his work here that he was later acclaimed as "the most original military thinker of his generation".[1] Turning to history for inspiration, Foch became known for his critical analyses of the Franco-Prussian and Napoleonic campaigns and of their relevance to the pursuit of military operations in the new century. His re-examination of France's painful defeat in 1870 was among the first of its kind.

In his career as instructor Foch created renewed interest in French military history, inspired confidence in a new class of French officers, and brought about "the intellectual and moral regeneration of the French Army".[2] His thinking on military doctrine was shaped by the Clausewitzian philosophy, then uncommon in France, that "the will to conquer is the first condition of victory." Collections of his lectures, which reintroduced the concept of the offensive to French military theory, were published in the volumes "Des Principes de la Guerre" ("On the Principles of War") in 1903, and "De la Conduite de la Guerre" ("On the Conduct of War") in 1904. While Foch advised "qualification and discernment" in military strategy and cautioned that "recklessness in attack could lead to prohibitive losses and ultimate failure,"[3] his concepts, distorted and misunderstood by contemporaries, became associated with the extreme offensive doctrines (l'offensive à outrance) of his successors. The cult of the offensive came to dominate military circles; that Foch's books were cited in the development of Plan XVII, the disastrous offensive that brought France close to ruin in 1914, proved particularly damaging to his reputation.

Foch continued his initially slow rise through the ranks, being promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in 1898. Thereafter, his career accelerated and he returned to command in 1901, when he was posted to a regiment. He was promoted to become a Colonel in 1903. After a short time spent as deputy chief of the general staff, he was appointed commandant of the École Militaire, then Brigadier General (Général de Brigade) in 1907, returning to the Staff College as Commandant from 1907–1911. In 1911 he was promoted to Général de Division (equivalent to the rank of Major General) and then in 1913 took command of XX>e Corps at Nancy. He had held this appointment exactly a year when he led the XX Corps into battle.

Foch was seen as a master of the Napoleonic school of military thought, but he was the only one of the war school commandants (Maillard, Langlois, Bonnal) still serving. Their doctrines had been challenged, not only by the German school, but also since about 1911 by a new French school inspired by General Loiseau de Grandmaison, which criticized them as lacking in vigor and offensive spirit, and contributing to needless dispersion of force. The French army fought under the new doctrines, but they failed in the first battles of August 1914, and it remained to be seen whether the Napoleonic doctrine would hold its own, would give way to doctrines evolved during the war, or would incorporate the new moral and technical elements into a new outward form within which the spirit of Napoleon remained unaltered. The war gave an ambiguous answer to these questions, which remained a source of controversy between experts.[4]

Foch influenced General Joseph Joffre (chief of general staff, July 28, 1911-Dec.12,1916) when he drafted the French plan of campaign (Plan 17) in 1913.[5]

World War I


On the outbreak of the war, Foch was in command of XX Corps, part of the Second Army of General de Castelnau. On 14 August the corps advanced towards the Sarrebourg-Morhange line, taking heavy casualties in the Battle of the Frontiers. The defeat of the French XV Corps to its right forced Foch into retreat. Foch acquitted himself well, covering the withdrawal to Nancy and the Charmes Gap, before launching a counter-attack that prevented the Germans from crossing the Meurthe.

Foch was then selected to command the newly formed Ninth Army during the First Battle of the Marne with Maxime Weygand as his Chief of Staff. Only a week after taking command, with the whole French Army in full retreat, he was forced to fight a series of defensive actions to prevent a German breakthrough. During the advance at the marshes in St.-Gond he is said to have declared: "My center is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking."[6] These words were seen as a symbol both of Foch's leadership and of French determination to resist the invader at any cost, although there is little evidence that Foch actually said them.[7]

Foch's counter-attack was an implementation of the theories he had developed during his staff college days, and succeeded in stopping the German advance. Foch received further reinforcements from the Fifth Army and, following another attack on his forces, counter-attacked again on the Marne. The Germans dug in before eventually retreating. On 12 September, Foch regained the Marne at Châlons and liberated the city. The people of Châlons greeted as a hero the man widely believed to have been instrumental in stopping the retreat and stabilising the Allied position. Receiving thanks from the Bishop of Châlons (Joseph-Marie Tissier), Foch piously replied, "non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam." (Not unto us, o Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory, Psalm 115:1).[8]

Foch's successes gained him a further promotion, on 4 October, when he was appointed assistant Commander-in-Chief with responsibility for co-ordinating the activities of the northern French armies, and liaising with the British forces. This was a key appointment as the Race to the Sea was then in progress. Joseph Joffre, commander-in-chief of the French Army, had also wanted to nominate Foch as his successor "in case of accident", to make sure the job would not be given to Joseph Gallieni, but the French government would not agree to this. When the Germans attacked on 13 October, they narrowly failed to break through the British and French lines. They tried again at the end of the month during the First Battle of Ypres; this time suffering terrible casualties. Foch had again succeeded in coordinating a defense and winning against the odds.

John French, the head of the British Expeditionary Force, had described Foch in August 1914 to J. E. B. Seely, a liaison officer, as “the sort of man with whom I know I can get on” and later in February 1915 described him to Lord Selbourne as “the best general in the world”. By contrast William Robertson, another British officer, thought that Foch was “rather a flat-catcher, a mere professor, and very talkative” (28 September 1915).[9]

On 2 December 1914, King George V appointed him an honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.[10]


In 1915, his responsibilities by now crystallised into command of the Northern Army Group, he conducted the Artois Offensive, and, in 1916, the French effort at the Battle of the Somme. He was strongly criticized for his tactics and the heavy casualties that were suffered by the Allied armies during these battles, and in December 1916 was removed from command by Joffre, and sent to command Allied units on the Italian front; Joffre was himself sacked days later.


Just a few months later, after the failure of General Robert Nivelle's offensive, General Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun, was appointed Chief of the General Staff; Foch hoped to succeed Pétain in command of Army Group Centre, but this job was instead given to General Fayolle. The following month Pétain was appointed Commander-in-Chief in place of Nivelle, and Foch was recalled and promoted to Chief of the General Staff. Like Pétain, Foch favoured only limited attacks (he had told Sir Henry Wilson, another officer in the British Army, that the planned Flanders offensive was “futile, fantastic & dangerous”) until the Americans were able to send large numbers of troops to France.[11]

Outside of the Western Front, Foch opposed Lloyd George's plans to send British and French troops to help Italy take Trieste, but was open to the suggestion of sending heavy guns.[12] The Anglo-French leadership agreed in early September to send 100 heavy guns to Italy, 50 of them from the French Army on Haig’s left, rather than the 300 which Lloyd George wanted – as the guns reached Italy Cadorna called off his offensive (21 September).[13]

Until the end of 1916 the French under Joffre had been the dominant allied army; by 1917 this was no longer the case, due to the vast number of casualties France's armies had suffered in the now three and a half year old struggle with Germany.[14]

The Supreme War Council was formally established on 7 November 1917, containing the Prime Minister and a minister from each of the Western front powers (i.e. excluding Russia), to meet at least once a month. Foch (along with Wilson and Italian general Luigi Cadorna) were appointed Military Representatives, to whom the General Staffs of each country were to submit their plans. The French tried to have Foch as Representative to increase their control over the Western Front (by contrast Cadorna was disgraced after the recent Battle of Caporetto and Wilson, a personal friend of Foch, was deliberately appointed as a rival to the British CIGS Robertson, an ally of Haig's, who had recently lost 250,000 men at the battle of Ypres the same year[15] ). Clemenceau was eventually persuaded to appoint Foch’s protégé Weygand instead, although many already suspected that Foch would eventually become Allied generalissimo.[16]

Late in 1917 Foch would have liked to have seen Haig replaced as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF by Herbert Plumer; however, Haig would remain in command of the BEF for the rest of the war.[17]


In January 1918, in accordance with Lloyd George’s wishes, an Executive Board was set up to control the planned Allied General Reserve, with Clemenceau’s agreement being obtained by having Foch on the Board rather than Maxime Weygand. Petain agreed to release only eight French divisions and made a bilateral agreement with Haig, who was reluctant to release any divisions at all, to assist one another. The situation was worsened by Clemenceau's and Petain's dislike of Foch. At a SWC Meeting in London (14–15 March), with a German offensive clearly imminent, Foch agreed under protest to shelve the Allied Reserve for the time being.[18]

On the evening of 24 March, after the German offensive was threatening to split apart the British and French forces, Foch telegraphed Wilson (who by now had replaced Robertson as British CIGS) “asking what [he] thought of situation & we are of one mind that someone must catch a hold or we shall be beaten”. Wilson reached France the following lunchtime. Petain had sent a dozen divisions to plug the gap and it is unclear that a committee would actually have acted any faster during the immediate crisis.[19] At the Doullens Conference (26 March) and Beauvais (3 April), Foch was given the job of coordinating the activities of the Allied armies,[20][21] forming a common reserve and using these divisions to guard the junction of the French and British armies and to plug the potentially fatal gap that would have followed a German breakthrough in the British Fifth Army sector. At a later conference he was give the title Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies with the title of Généralissime ("supreme General"). In May 1918, in the fifth session of the Supreme War Council, Foch was given authority over the Italian Front.[14]

Despite being surprised by the German offensive on the Chemin des Dames, the Allied armies under Foch's command ultimately held the advance of the German forces during the great Spring Offensive of 1918 and at the Second Battle of the Marne in July 1918. The celebrated phrase, "I will fight in front of Paris, I will fight in Paris, I will fight behind Paris," attributed both to Foch and Clemenceau, illustrated the Généralissime's resolve to keep the Allied armies intact, even at the risk of losing the capital.

The British were disappointed that Foch operated through his own staff rather than through the Permanent Military Representatives at Versailles, and on 11 July 1918 British ministers resolved to remind Foch that he was an Allied, and not a French, commander-in-chief.[14]

On 6 August 1918, Foch was made a Marshal of France. Along with the British commander Field Marshal Douglas Haig, Foch planned the Grand Offensive, opening on 26 September 1918, which led to the defeat of Germany. After the war, he claimed to have defeated Germany by smoking his pipe.[22] An unintended consequence of Foch's appointment was that he sheltered Haig from British political interference.[14]

Before the armistice Foch was given control over a planned invasion of Germany through Bavaria.[14]

Foch accepted the German cessation of hostilities in November, after which he refused to shake the hand of the German signatory, Matthias Erzberger.. On the day of the armistice, he was elected to the Académie des Sciences. Ten days later, he was unanimously elected to the Académie française. On 30 November 1918, he was awarded the highest Portuguese decoration, the Order of the Tower and Sword, 1st class (Grand Cross).


In the euphoria of victory Foch was regularly compared to Napoleon and Caesar; postwar historians took a less sanguine view of Foch's talents as commander, particularly as that idea took root that his military doctrines had set the stage for the futile and costly offensives of 1914 in which French armies suffered devastating losses. Supporters and critics continue to debate Foch's tactical ideas and instincts as a commander, as well as his exact contributions to the Marne "miracle": Foch's counterattacks at the Marne generally failed, but his sector resisted determined German attacks while holding the pivot on which the neighbouring French and British forces depended in rolling back the German line.

Foch's pre-war contributions as military theorist and lecturer have also been recognized, and he has been credited, in one instance, as "the most original and subtle mind in the French army" in the early 20th century.[2]

Paris Peace Conference

In January 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference Foch presented a memorandum to the Allied plenipotentiaries in which he stated:

Henceforward the Rhine ought to be the Western military frontier of the German countries. Henceforward Germany ought to be deprived of all entrance and assembling ground, that is, of all territorial sovereignty on the left bank of the river, that is, of all facilities for invading quickly, as in 1914, Belgium, Luxembourg, for reaching the coast of the North Sea and threatening the United Kingdom, for outflanking the natural defences of France, the Rhine, Meuse, conquering the Northern Provinces and entering the Parisian area.[23]

In a subsequent memorandum, Foch argued that the Allies should take full advantage of their victory by permanently weakening German power in order to prevent her from threatening France again :

What the people of Germany fear the most is a renewal of hostilities since, this time, Germany would be the field of battle and the scene of the consequent devastation. This makes it impossible for the yet unstable German Government to reject any demand on our part if it is clearly formulated. The Entente, in its present favourable military situation, can obtain acceptance of any peace conditions it may put forward provided that they are presented without much delay. All it has to do is to decide what they shall be.[23]

However the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and the American President Wilson objected to the detachment of the Rhineland from Germany, but agreed to Allied military occupation for fifteen years, which Foch thought insufficient to protect France.

Foch considered the Treaty of Versailles to be "a capitulation, a treason" because he believed that only permanent occupation of the Rhineland would grant France sufficient security against a revival of German aggression.[24] As the treaty was being signed Foch said: "This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years".[25]

Post-war career and legacy

Foch was made a British Field Marshal in 1919,[26] and, for his advice during the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920, as well as his pressure on Germany during the Great Poland Uprising, he was awarded with the title of Marshal of Poland in 1923.

On 1 November 1921 Foch was in Kansas City to take part in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Liberty Memorial that was being constructed there. Also present that day were Lieutenant General Baron Jacques of Belgium, Admiral David Beatty of Great Britain, General Armando Diaz of Italy and General John J. Pershing of the United States. One of the main speakers was Vice President Calvin Coolidge of the United States. In 1935 bas-reliefs of Foch, Jacques, Diaz and Pershing by sculptor Walker Hancock were added to the memorial.

Foch died on 20 March 1929, and was interred in Les Invalides, next to Napoleon and many other famous French soldiers and officers.

A statue of Foch was set up at the Compiègne Armistice site when the area was converted into a national memorial. This statue was the one item left undisturbed by the Germans following their defeat of France in June, 1940. Following the signing of France's surrender on 21 June, the Germans ravaged the area surrounding the railway car in which both the 1918 and 1940 surrenders had taken place. The statue was left standing, to view nothing but a wasteland. The Armistice site was restored by German POW labour following the Second World War, with its memorials and monuments either restored or reassembled.

Honours and awards

A heavy cruiser and an aircraft carrier were named in his honour. An early district of Gdynia, Poland was also named "Foch" after the marshal, but was renamed by the communist government after the Second World War. Nevertheless, one of the major avenues of the town of Bydgoszcz, located then in the Polish corridor, holds his name as sign of gratitude for campaigning for an independent Poland. Avenue Foch, a street in Paris, was named after him. Several other streets have been named in his honour in Melbourne, Ypres, Lyon, Kraków, Chrzanów,[27] Grenoble, Quito, Beirut, New Orleans, Wynnum, Cambridge, Williston Park, Milltown, Shanghai (now part of Yan'an Road) and Singapore (Foch Road). Fochville in South Africa was also named in his honour. A statue of Foch stands near Victoria station in London. He is the only Frenchmen ever to be made an honorary field-marshal by the British, and the only French person ever commemorated by a statue in London.[28] Foch also has a grape cultivar named after him. In the Belgian city of Leuven, one of the center squares was named after him after the first World War, but the square was renamed in 2011.[29] Mount Foch in Alberta is also named after him.


Knight - 9 July 1892;
Officer - 11 July 1908;
Commander - 31 December 1913;
Grand Officer - 18 September 1914;
Grand Cross - 8 October 1915.
  • Medaille Militaire - 21 December 1916.
  • Croix de Guerre 1914-1918
  • Commemorative medal of the 1870–1871 War
  • Officer of Public Instruction.

Foreign decorations

Foch received the title of Doctor honoris causa of the Jagiellonian University of Kraków in 1918.

See also

Biography portal



  • Les Principes de la guerre. Conférences faites à l'Ecole supérieure de guerre (On the Principles of War), Berger-Levrault, (1903)
  • La Conduite de la guerre (On the Conduct of War), Berger-Levrault, 1905
  • Mémoire pour servir à l'histoire de la guerre 1914-1918 (The Memoirs of Marshal Foch,Posthumous), Plon, 1931.
  • Porte, Rémy, and F Cochet. Ferdinand Foch, 1851-1929: Apprenez À Penser : Actes Du Colloque International, École Militaire, Paris, 6-7 Novembre 2008. Paris: Soteca, 2010. ISBN 978-2-916385-43-3

Further reading

  • Doughty, Robert A. Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War (Harvard U.P. 2005)
  • Greenhalgh, Elizabeth. Foch in Command. The Forging of a First World War General (Cambridge University Press, 2011); 550 pp. online review in H-FRANCE
  • Greenhalgh, Elizabeth. Victory Through Coalition. Britain and France During the First World War (2005)
  • Neiberg, Michael S. Foch: Supreme Allied Commander in the Great War (Brassey’s Inc., 2003), short popular biography
  • Woodward, David R. Field Marshal Sir William Robertson Westport Connecticut & London: Praeger, 1998, ISBN 0-275-95422-6

External links

Template:EB1922 Poster

  • Unjustly Accused: Marshal Ferdinand Foch and the French 'Cult of the Offensive'
  • Biography on
  • Foch's Biography in French on the Immortals page of the Académie française
  • Foch the Man, by Clara E. Laughlin at Project Gutenberg
  • Find a Grave
Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Nicholas Longworth
Cover of Time Magazine
16 March 1925
Succeeded by
Eduard Benes

Template:Académie française Seat 18

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